Ladies and gentlemen,
“If Czechoslovakia really manages to put into place democratic socialism, then there will probably be no excuse for the lack of democratic freedoms in our country. Then it can happen that our workers, farmers and intelligentsia will wish to have their freedom of speech in practice and not only on paper.” This is what Anatoly Marchenko from Russia wrote on 22nd July 1968 in his open letter expressing his sympathies for the Prague Spring. Zorjan Popadjuk from Ukraine, who was fifteen in 1968, would simply say: “We hoped that freedom would finally come to our country as well.”
Fifty years ago, the prospects of the Ukrainians but also millions of citizens of Czechoslovakia and other countries of the former Soviet Bloc who hoped that the Communist Party’s rule could now become more human were dashed, for a long time, by the arrival of Soviet (not Ukrainian!, as some Czech communists still surprisingly lie about) tanks. The close circle of people ruling the Soviet Union decided to resolve their conflict with the Czechoslovak communists by sending to a neighbouring country several hundreds of thousands of armed soldiers in several hundreds of aircraft and more than six thousand tanks. Many of the soldiers had no idea where they were going and why. Today, both the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia have been history for more than twenty-five years. On 26th August 1993, the President of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, and the President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, signed an Agreement on Good Neighbourly Relations and Friendly Cooperation whose preamble emphasizes the significance of unconditional respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, principles of democracy, humanism and the rule of law. The preamble also expresses the wish to put a definite end to the totalitarian past, an era associated with the unacceptable use of force against Czechoslovakia in 1968 and unjustifiable presence of Soviet troops in the Czechoslovak territory. We continue to consider this a good basis for our relations with Russia.
The Czech Republic is a democratic country that has agreed to share the commitment of other western countries to joint defence within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well as to join the majority of European countries that build and respect the rules and values represented by the European Union. Why should we then look back at what happened in 1968, and what significance it has for today and for our future?
Memories of the several months of the Prague Spring and the occupation of Czechoslovakia can be varied, but I think we can easily find two things on which all will agree. The first one is the freedom of speech - at the turn of February and March 1968, censorship was in fact abolished, and journalists and citizens were no longer afraid to write and discuss the issues they considered important. This very fact won the Prague Spring the support of a great part of the population, including the opponents of the Communist Party who did not believe that communism could be reformed. Anatoly Marchenko, the Soviet dissident I have quoted at the beginning, summed this up in one sentence: “The only way to fight against the rule of evil and lawlessness is by the knowledge of truth.”
And this takes me to another, equally important thing: no one in Czechoslovakia, not even the Soviet soldiers, believed the lies of the Kremlin rulers that the military aggression against a neighbouring and friendly country, and the occupation trampling on the principles of international law, was “comradely help” or “salvation from armed counter-revolution and fascism.” And for the third time, I quote Anatoly Marchenko who, in his open letter, wrote that: “I do not believe in any imaginary conspiracy of imperialism against the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, or in the ‘offensive of the forces of the internal reaction’. I think that not even those who fabricated these rumours can believe in them. The accusations have been made up deliberately to enforce order and to cloud the minds of their own people. Are our leaders really so much concerned about what is going on in Czechoslovakia? I think they are not just concerned, they are scared - not that this would pose a threat to socialist development or the security of the Warsaw Pact, but because the events in Czechoslovakia may undermine the authority of the leaders of those countries and discredit the very principles and methods of governance in today’s socialist camp.” For these words, Anatoly Marchenko was jailed, and went on to spend two decades in Soviet GULAG concentration camps and in forced internal exile. He died in Chistopol prison in Tatarstan in December 1986, and so he unfortunately did not live to see the collapse of the Soviet Union. Zoran Popadyuk spent twelve years behind bars for putting up leaflets denouncing the occupation of Czechoslovakia and other “anti-Soviet activities”, as this was called. Hundreds of people in the Soviet Union and the whole Eastern Bloc were not afraid to stand up against lies and injustice. Some of them, like the Pole Ryszard Siwiec, even took their life.
Mustafa Dzhemilev, leader of the Crimean Tartars, spent fifteen years in Soviet prison for denouncing the occupation of Czechoslovakia, among other actions. Equally unjust is the occupation of his home, Crimea, by the Russian Federation, carried out in violation of international law and justified by many lies. No democratic country recognized the annexation of Crimea, and one day the Russian soldiers will leave, just as they left Czechoslovakia. One of the main points about our membership of the European Union and NATO, as well as our foreign policy, is that we on the European continent need not fear foreign armies, and that we should know the price of the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and other human and civil rights, and also that we should support those who are not afraid to face up to evil and lies. One of such people is Oleg Sentsov, a brave journalist who was not scared of calling the Russian occupation an occupation for which he was accused of terrorism and sentenced to twenty years in prison. Just as in 1968 when no one believed that the occupation of Czechoslovakia was comradely help, today no one will believe that Oleg Sentsov is a terrorist. By putting him and several dozens of Ukrainian citizens into jail, Russian leaders only cause harm to themselves.
Fifty years ago, from the Karlín Barracks where we are now, a few brave employees of the Czechoslovak radio continued to broadcast the truth about the occupation of Czechoslovakia after the main radio building on Vinohradská Street was occupied by Soviet soldiers at the cost of the lives of several Czechoslovak citizens. The defenders of the radio as well as editors and other employees knew the value of truthful information and free speech in the struggle with injustice. This is also what Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was striving for throughout all the time of oppression until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. I am immensely proud that this radio has been broadcasting from Prague for twenty-three years now, and I would like to express my thanks to the employees and collaborators who stand on the side of truth and freedom for their work, and of course also for the invitation and for organizing today’s evening.